Sriracha shortage has Chicago restaurants, shoppers scrambling for hot sauce

Stockpiling, making their own or using alternatives are some of the ways local restaurants are dealing with a lack of Huy Fong Sriracha.

SHARE Sriracha shortage has Chicago restaurants, shoppers scrambling for hot sauce
Amy Le, owner of Saucy Porka, with her entire stock of Sriracha at the restaurant’s 55th Street location on Wednesday, July 12, 2023 in Chicago.

Amy Le, owner of Saucy Porka, with her entire stock of Huy Fong sriracha at her restaurant in Hyde Park.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

It’s a combination that’s becoming as classic as peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese: a bowl of pho with a drizzle of Sriracha.

But not just any Sriracha will do for the Vietnamese noodle soup. For most people, it has to be Huy Fong, the one with the rooster on the bottle and green cap.

The rise in popularity of the condiment made from hot peppers pureed into a thick paste is a surprise to Thien Ly, whose family owns and operates Tank Noodle at 4953 N. Broadway in Uptown and 4706 W. Irving Park Road in Portage Park.

Bottles of sriracha at Saucy Porka in Hyde Park. A nationwide shortage of the popular sauce has led to soaring prices on Amazon and eBay.

Bottles of Sriracha at Saucy Porka in Hyde Park. A nationwide shortage of the popular sauce has led to soaring prices on Amazon and eBay.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

“Back when I was growing up, [Sriracha] wasn’t super popular,” said Ly, now 35. “Nobody really knew about it except for the Vietnamese community who eats pho.”

Since then, Huy Fong’s Sriracha has spawned imitators and found its way into everything from potato chips and jerky to ranch dressing and tartar sauce.

But these days bottles are hard to come by.

Huy Fong, the California-based producer, uses peppers from suppliers in Mexico, where severe drought affected crops. “Unfortunately, we are still experiencing a shortage of raw material. At this time, we have no estimations of when supply will increase,” the company said in a statement to the Sun-Times.

The shortage has prompted restaurants such as Saucy Porka to find alternatives.

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April is when Amy Le, co-owner and chef of Saucy Porka, began to feel the effects of the shortage at her restaurants in Hyde Park and the South Loop. Le said her staff started using alternative hot sauces, such as the Mexican Cholula hot sauce, which Le said makes sense for the Latin American-Asian fusion restaurant.

A case of 200 packets of that hot sauce is about $14, Le said. About three weeks ago the Huy Fong brand of Sriracha was going for $50 a case, which has six bottles; five years ago it was $27.95, she said.

Ly of Tank Noodle said the business stockpiled Sriracha every chance it could, and at one point, had 20 cases on hand.

“We’re not trying to plan a replacement. But I do feel like that sense of urgency because we’re running out of Sriracha slowly,” Ly said. “If this keeps on going on, you have to look at alternatives, and that might be the best way [forward] for a lot of restaurants. … I guess this is a good time for competition to come in and try to work that market.”

It might be a hard sell for someone new.

“I’ve tried a couple other brands, and you know, they just don’t hit the spot,” Ly said. “It’s hard, planning a substitute for A.1. sauce or a Heinz ketchup. [An alternative] will do the job, but just you’re missing the flavor.”

Ly said making their own is not an option.

“I wouldn’t know where to start. We make our own chili oil, but Sriracha is very unique. And to make that much to satisfy the amount of customers using it for pho, I’d be building my own factory,” he said.

At Saigon Sisters, 567 W. Lake St., where Sriracha is a key component of its Sriracha wings, they made Sriracha before the pandemic, proprietor Mary Aregoni said.

They eventually scrapped the dish during the pandemic when the price of chicken was too high. They also stopped making the sauce because they had problems sourcing the Thai peppers.

“It’s just a different ballgame to produce and manufacture something like that in mass production,” Aregoni said.

Her vendor doesn’t have any Sriracha available at the moment but said it might return by the end of the month. But she’s nervous about the price and is considering going back to making the sauce in-house.

“It used to be $2.99 for a 32-ounce bottle or something like that. I think the highest I’ve seen is $7.99. But if it goes up to $15 or something, I probably will rather make my own,” she said.

While restaurants are struggling to source the sauce, it’s even more difficult for a shopper.

Trung Nguyen, assistant director for Jewel-Osco, said none of the chain’s grocery stores has had Huy Fong Sriracha in stock for six weeks.

“I don’t have a tentative date at all whatsoever when the [Huy Fong] Sriracha will be back on the shelf,” Nguyen said. Despite the shortage, Nguyen said, the stores haven’t seen an increase in sales of other brands of Sriracha.

Where Huy Fong Sriracha is available, the price has gone up. Way up.

Max Chavez, a West Ridge resident who is director of research and special projects at Preservation Chicago, was shopping at Joong Boo Market recently when he spotted a 28-ounce bottle of the sauce going for $29.99.

“I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than $6 or $7 for a bottle of Sriracha,” said Chavez, who did not buy it. “I could be convinced to pay up to $10 or even $15 for a bottle at this point, but $30 for a 28-ounce bottle is highway robbery. No hot sauce is that good.”

On Amazon Wednesday, a 28-ounce bottle was commanding nearly $50. A 12-pack case was going for $300 on eBay.

Le, who grew up in the restaurant business with her mom’s Chinese restaurants in St. Louis, said she hopes the takeaway from the Sriracha shortage, however long it may be, is the availability of food in general.

“I see a lot of the memes that are making fun of it, but it’s kind of a scary situation, like ‘Is this the new world that we live in?’” Le said. “That it is just going to continue where we start to like see the loss of one type of product and then maybe some more products down the road ... because we can’t harvest as much as we once did.”

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